Using Questions to Engage & Assess

Engaging students in the learning process is the job of the teacher. The problem is knowing what methods work best to ensure your students engage with the material. There are multiple ways to engage students in learning. In this chapter, we will look at the use of questioning that can be used to elicit the type of engagement from students that you desire.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you will be able to:

  • Describe the purpose of questioning.
  • Explain components of effective questioning practices.
  • Differentiate between open and closed questions.
  • Use strategies to elicit student thinking such as:
    • Wait Time
    • Cold Call
    • No Opt Out

Questioning to Engage

The interaction between a teacher and learner is the most important feature of a classroom. Whether helping learners to acquire basic skills, develop understanding to solve problems, or to engage in higher-order thinking such as evaluation, a teacher’s usage of questions within the learning cycle is crucial. For teachers, questioning is a key skill that can be learned and improved with practice and reflection. Research into questioning has given some clear pointers as to what works. These can provide the basis for improving classroom practice. A very common problem identified by the research is that pupils are frequently not provided with enough ‘wait time’ to consider an answer; another is that teachers tend to ask too many of the same type of questions. The focus of this section will be on developing foundational skills to equip you to ask effective questions that help you engage students and elicit student thinking to inform your instruction.

Purpose of Questioning*

Teachers ask questions for a number of reasons, the most common of which are

  • to interest, engage and challenge learners;
  • to check on prior knowledge and understanding;
  • to stimulate recall, activating existing knowledge and experience in order to create new understanding and meaning;
  • to focus pupils’ thinking on key concepts and issues;
  • to help pupils extend their thinking from the concrete and factual to the analytical and evaluative;
  • to lead pupils through a planned sequence which progressively establishes key understandings;
  • to promote reasoning, problem-solving, evaluation and the formulation of hypotheses;
  • to promote learners’ thinking about the way they have learned.

The kind of question asked will depend on the reason for asking it. For example, questioning may also be used to bring a student’s attention back to the task at hand, ‘What do you think about that, Peter?’ or ‘Do you agree?’ See Nathan Bond’s 12 Questioning Strategies that Minimize Classroom Management Problems for ideas on how to use questions to engage learners. However, questions designed to elicit student thinking are often referred to as ‘open’ or ‘closed.’

Closed questions, which have one clear answer, are useful to check understanding during explanations and recap sessions. If you want to check recall, you are likely to ask a fairly closed question, for example, ‘What is the atomic number for Oxygen?’ or ‘What do we call this type of text?’

On the other hand, if you want to help pupils develop higher-order thinking skills, you will need to ask more open questions that allow learners to give a variety of acceptable responses. During class discussions and debriefings, it is useful to ask open questions, for example, ‘Which of these four sources were most useful in helping with this inquiry?’, ‘Given all the conflicting arguments, where would you build the new superstore?’, ‘What do you think might affect the size of the current in this circuit?’

Summary of Research*

Questioning is one of the most extensively researched areas of teaching and learning. This is because of its central importance in the teaching and learning process. The research can be divided into two broad categories

  • What is effective questioning?
  • How do questions engage students and promote responses?

What is effective questioning?

Questioning is effective when it allows students to engage with the learning process by actively composing responses. Research (Borich 1996; Muijs and Reynolds 2001; Morgan and Saxton 1994; Wragg and Brown 2001) suggests that lessons, where questioning is effective, are likely to have the following characteristics

  • Questions are planned and closely linked to the objectives of the lesson.
  • The learning of basic skills is enhanced by frequent questions during guided practice sessions.
  • Closed questions are used to check factual understanding and recall.
  • Open questions predominate.
  • Sequences of questions are planned so that the cognitive level increases as the questions go on.
  • Students have opportunities to ask their own questions and seek their own answers. They are encouraged to provide feedback to each other.
  • The classroom climate is one where students feel secure enough to take risks.

The research emphasizes the importance of using open, higher-level questions to develop students’ higher-order thinking skills. There needs to be a balance between open and closed questions, depending on the topic and objectives for the lesson. A closed question, such as ‘What is the next number in the sequence?’, can be extended by a follow-up question, such as ‘How did you work that out?’

In the video below, watch how the teacher uses questions to develop higher-order thinking skills. For an in-depth analysis, check out Doug Lemov’s analysis of how a teacher stretches student thinking with open questions.


Overall, the research shows that effective teachers use a greater number of higher-order questions and open questions than less effective teachers. However, the research also demonstrates that most of the questions asked by effective and less effective teachers are lower order and closed. It is estimated that 70–80 percent of all learning-focused questions require a simple factual response, whereas only 20–30 percent lead students to explain, clarify, expand, generalize or infer. In other words, only a minority of questions demand that students use higher-order thinking skills. The mix of open and closed questions will, of course, depend on what is being taught and the objectives of the lesson. However, teachers who ask no open questions in a lesson may be providing insufficient cognitive challenges for students.

In this video, education expert John Hattie from the University of Melbourne elaborates on our understanding of why questions are an essential component of developing self-regulated learners.

How do questions engage students and promote responses?

It doesn’t matter how well-structured your questions are if your students do not respond. This can be a problem with shy or older students who are not used to highly interactive teaching. It can also be a problem with students who are not very interested in school or engaged with learning. The research identifies a number of strategies that are helpful in encouraging student response. (See Borich 1996; Muijs and Reynolds 2001; Morgan and Saxton 1994; Wragg and Brown 2001; Rowe 1986; Black and Harrison 2001; Black et al. 2002.)

Student response is enhanced where

  • there is a classroom climate in which students feel safe and know they will not be criticized or ridiculed if they give a wrong answer
  • prompts are provided to give students the confidence to try and answer
  • a ‘no-hands’ approach to answering, where you choose the respondent rather than have them volunteer. This is often referred to as cold calling.
  • students who either do not know the answer or refuse to answer, are not allowed to opt-out of answering the question.
  • wait time’ is provided before an answer is required. The research suggests that 3 seconds is about right for most questions, more complex questions may need a longer wait time. Research shows that the average wait time in classrooms is about 1 second (Rowe 1986; Borich 1996)
See It in Action: Addressing a Lack of Hands

Consider Doug Lemov’s analysis of what a teacher does when they don’t get many hands to engage more students during questioning.

Check out Connie Hamilton’s blog post where she discusses strategies to get rid of the “I don’t know” response in your classroom.


Common Pitfalls and Possible Solutions*

Although questions are the most common form of interaction between teachers and students, it is fair to say that questions are not always well judged or productive for learning. This section identifies some common pitfalls of questioning and suggests some ways to avoid them.

Not being clear about why you are asking the question: You will need to reflect on the kind of lesson you are planning. Is it one where you are mainly focusing on facts, rules, and sequences of actions? If that is the case, you will be more likely to ask closed questions that relate to knowledge. Or is it a lesson where you are focusing mainly on comprehension, concepts, and abstractions? In that case, you will be more likely to use open questions that relate to analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

Asking too many closed questions that need only a short answer: It helps if you plan open questions in advance. Another strategy is to establish an optimum length of response by saying something like ‘I don’t want an answer of fewer than 15 words.’

Asking too many questions at once: Asking about a complex issue can often lead to complex questions. Since these questions are oral rather than written, students may find it difficult to understand what is required and they become confused. When you are dealing with a complex subject, you need to focus each question on one idea only. It also helps to use direct, concrete language and as few words as possible.

Asking difficult questions without building up to them: This happens when there isn’t a planned sequence of questions of increasing difficulty. Sequencing questions is necessary to help students to move to higher levels of thinking.

Asking superficial questions: It is possible to ask lots of questions but not get to the center of the issue. You can avoid this problem by planning probing questions in advance. They can often be built in as follow-up questions to extend an answer.

Asking a question and then answering it yourself: What’s the point? This pitfall is often linked to another problem: not giving students time to think before they answer. Use ‘wait time’ to give students a chance to respond. You could say ‘Think about your answer for 3 seconds, then I will ask.’ You could also provide prompts to help.

Focusing on a small number of students and not involving the whole class: One way of avoiding this is to get the whole class to write their answers to closed questions and then show them to you together. Some teachers use small whiteboards for this. Another possibility, which may be more effective for more open questions, is to use the ‘no-hands’ strategy, where you pick the respondent rather than having them volunteer. One advantage of this is that you can ask students questions at appropriate levels of difficulty. This is a good way of differentiating to ensure inclusion.

Check out Jennifer Gonzalez’s blog post where she discussed the “Fisheye Syndrome” and provides strategies of how to avoid situations where only a handful of students answer questions.


Dealing ineffectively with wrong answers or misconceptions: Teachers sometimes worry that they risk damaging students’ self-esteem by correcting them. There are ways of handling this positively, such as providing prompts and scaffolds to help students correct their mistakes.

Not treating students’ answers seriously: Sometimes teachers simply ignore answers that are a bit off-target. They can also fail to see the implications of these answers and miss opportunities to build on them. You could ask students why they have given that answer or if there is anything they would like to add. You could also ask other students to extend the answer. It is important not to cut students off and move on too quickly if they have given a wrong answer.

Check out Colin Seale’s blog post where he discusses the “Magic of Mistakes” and provides strategies to boost student’s critical thinking by analyzing mistakes.


Questions that Promote Critical Thinking*

Tips from the Pros: Question Frames

Check out Mark Fisher’s blog post about Question Frames. A variety of Question Frames can be found on the Internet. A key takeaway is that by tracking your use of questions, you might better inform your planning of questions. Consider downloading one of the blank templates to evaluate your use of questions during your next teaching session.

To ensure that you are utilizing a balance of open and closed questions it is helpful to plan your questions in advance of a lesson. You may find that using a framework such as Bloom’s Taxonomy to be a useful tool when designing questions. Here are some suggested prompts that align with Bloom’s. Many are useful as follow-up probing questions that can be used to extend student thinking:

Remember: Exhibit previously learned material by recalling facts, terms, basic concepts, and answers.

  • What is …?
  • When did ____ happen?
  • How would you explain …?
  • Why did …?
  • How would you describe …?

Understand: Demonstrating understanding of facts and ideas by organizing, comparing, translating, interpreting, giving descriptions and stating main ideas.

  • How would you compare …? contrast.. ?
  • Explain in your own words . . . ?
  • What facts or ideas show …?
  • What evidence is there that…?

Apply: Solving problems by applying acquired knowledge, facts, techniques and rules in a different way.

  • What examples can you find to . . . ?
  • How would you show your understanding of…?
  • What approach would you use to…?
  • What might have happened if. . . ?

Analyze: Examining and breaking information into parts by identifying motives or causes; making inferences and finding evidence to support generalizations.

  • What inference can you make from. . . ?
  • How would you classify . . . ?
  • How would you categorize …?
  • Can you identify the different parts…?

Evaluate: Presenting and defending opinions by making judgments about information, the validity of ideas or quality of work based on a set of criteria.

  • How would you compare ……?
  • Which do you think is better …?
  • Evaluate the contribution of ….. to …………….
  • What was the value or importance of …….. in …………..?
  • What would you have recommended if you had been ……?

Create: Compiling information together in a different way by combining elements in a new pattern or proposing alternative solutions.

  • What might have happened if…?
  • Can you propose an alternative interpretation to that of ……. . ?


Learning to ask effective questions and respond to student thinking is a skill that takes effort and time to develop. To continue growing into an effective teacher, you can enhance your questioning skills by being intentional in the planning of your questions. Make efforts to align your questions to your learning objectives. Plan sequences of questions that lead your students to increasingly challenging cognitive levels of understanding. Lastly, monitor the types of questions you ask, how much wait time you provide, and how you call on students to share responses.

Summarizing Key Understandings



Exercise: Use the self-evaluation tool below to assess your current efforts to establish a positive learning environment.

Establishing a Positive Learning Environment Component Yes No Working on It
I provide multiple opportunities for students to respond.
I use a variety of strategies to increase student opportunities to respond.
I use wait time to increase student opportunities for thinking.
I plan instructional questions and response methods prior to the lesson

Suggested Activities

Classroom Video Analysis

Video can be a great tool to improve your teaching practice. After watching videos of their classrooms, teachers realized they did not have a clear sense of reality regarding what was occurring in their classrooms (Knight, 2013). Teachers can use videos of their lessons to set goals relevant to the immediate needs they notice to improve student learning and well-being. Consider practicing the art of using video to gain a clearer understanding of how you use questions in your teaching practice. After watching your video, outline a goal and action steps to address the behavioral focus you’ve selected to explore.

    1. State any observed problem(s) that you noticed;
    2. Describe the importance of addressing this problem;
    3. Hypothesize possible causes/sources of the problem;
    4. Set a specific and measurable goal for improvement; and
    5. Explain what next steps you plan to take to achieve your goal.

*For specific templates related to analyzing the use of questions in the classroom, check out the work of Jim Knight in Focus on Teaching: Using Video for High-Impact Instruction (2014).

References & Attributions

Attribution: “Introduction” & “Purpose of Questioning” was adapted in part from Types of Question by ORBIT: The Open Resource Bank for Interactive Teaching, University of Cambridge, Faculty of Education,  licensed CC BY-SA 4.0.

Attribution: “Summary of Research” was adapted in part from Questioning Research Summary by ORBIT: The Open Resource Bank for Interactive Teaching, University of Cambridge, Faculty of Education,  licensed CC BY-SA 4.0.

Attribution: “Common Pitfalls & Possible Solutions” was adapted in part from Ch. 9 Questioning in Instructional Methods, Strategies and Technologies to Meet the Needs of All Learners by Paula Lombardi, licensed CC BY-SA 4.0

Attribution: “Questions that Promote Critical Thinking” was adapted in part from How to Ask Questions that Prompt Critical Thinking by UCD Teaching and Learning, University College Dublin, licensed CC BY 3.0

Black, P. and Harrison, C. (2001) ‘Feedback in questioning and marking: the science teacher’s role in formative assessment’. School Science Review 82 (June) 43–49.

Black, P. et al. (2002) Working inside the black box: assessment for learning in the classroom. King’s College, London. ISBN: 1871984394.

Borich, G. D. (1996) Effective teaching methods (esp. ch. 8, Questioning strategies). Prentice Hall. ISBN: 002312461X.

Knight, J. (2014). Focus on teaching: Using video for high-impact instruction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Knight, J. (2013). High impact instruction: A framework for great teaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin

Morgan, N. and Saxton, J. (1994) Asking better questions: models, techniques and classroom activities for engaging students in learning. Pembroke.ISBN: 1551380455.

Muijs, D. and Reynolds, D. (2001) Effective teaching: evidence and practice (esp. ch. 2, Interactive teaching). Paul Chapman. ISBN: 0761968814.

Rowe, M. B. (1986) ‘Wait time: slowing down may be a way of speeding up!’ Journal of Teacher Education 37 (January–February) 43–50.

Wragg, E. C. and Brown, G. (2001) Questioning in the secondary school. Routledge. ISBN: 014524952X.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Using Questions to Engage & Assess Copyright © by Jason Proctor is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book